Questions Answered

Galileo Facing the Roman Inquisition by Cristiano Banti (1824–1904)

Question: Please explain why “even attachment to venial sin” prevents one from obtaining a plenary indulgence. It seems no one can receive one as we all are attached to, and even commit, venial sins.

Answer: The answers to this question are many and varied, but they all seem to boil down to many people claiming that it is almost impossible to receive a plenary indulgence because of the prevalence in man of concupiscence after Original Sin. This seems astonishing and quite rigorist to me considering the promotion by the Church of the plenary indulgence. A short catechesis on indulgences would seem indicated.

The Code of Canon Law defines an indulgence as: “the remission in the sight of God of the temporal punishment due for sins, the guilt of which has already been forgiven. A member of Christ’s faithful who is properly disposed, and who fulfills certain specific conditions, may gain an indulgence with the help of the Church, which as a minister of redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of merits of Christ and the saints.” (Canon 992)

Several things should be noted about this definition. First, it entails the remission of temporal punishment, not eternal punishment. Second, one must be properly disposed, and fulfill certain conditions, and third, it is an ecclesial application of the treasury of merit of Christ and the saints. Each part requires explanation.

An indulgence is NOT the forgiveness of eternal, but of temporal, punishment. Let us take an example. Suppose one has a loving friend who has a prized possession. In the midst of an attack of anger, that person destroys the friend’s most prized possession. He is filled with instant remorse, and begs the forgiveness of the friend who, being good and loving, forgives. Two things still remain to atone for: first, the possession is destroyed, and must be replaced if the offender is sincere; and, second, the anger must be addressed within himself which led him to such an unloving act. In mortal sin, one is forgiven by God in confession, so eternal punishment is resolved with the return to grace. Yet, whatever disorder led to the sin within the person still must be addressed, and whatever harm he has done to another must be restored. This is temporal punishment and comparable to the possessed thing, and the inner anger in the above example.

Some people obtain this resolution on earth by suffering, or positive restitution. If this is not done, the order of divine justice must still be satisfied in purgatory, but because the person lacks a body, this must be done passively, not actively. An indulgence is a recognition that one can speed up the process of purification, either for oneself, or for others, especially the souls in Purgatory, by that application of the love of Christ.

The conditions are meant to underline that this is not a divine bookkeeping system, or some magic imputation of sin without any interior disposition whatsoever. These conditions are: freedom from all attachment to sin, even venial sin; the work attached to the indulgence, if there is one; assistance at Mass, and confession and prayer for the intention of the Pope. Ideally, the last three conditions should be fulfilled within a short period of time after the granting of the indulgence. The last three conditions are straightforward. The first, as the questioner acknowledges, is difficult to interpret.

Venial sin is not really sin per se. It is called sin analogically because it is not incompatible with the existence of love for God and neighbor. Detachment from this does not mean that one is free even from temptation regarding it. Detachment here would be more akin to the firm purpose of amendment which is a requirement for true penance in the soul. Detachment can be explained in spiritual theology as the surrender of all that the self holds dear which conflicts with the ultimate end of man, which is heaven. The opinion that a person who still could be tempted to commit a venial sin is the same as an attachment is excessively rigorist. Temptation is not sin because it does not involve consent of the will. The attachment to venial sin would involve continued consent of the will to the moral weaknesses to which the whole human race is susceptible, with the exception of Mary.

The Catechism should make the distinction complete. “The first Protestant reformers, on the contrary, taught that original sin radically perverted man, and destroyed his freedom; they identified the sin inherited by each man with the tendency to evil (concupiscientia), which would be insurmountable.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 406) Without this distinction, the Jansenist tendency to identify temptation by concupiscence with sin would apply. Also, the tendency of the Protestant reformers not to distinguish between mortal and venial sin would apply, too. Instead, this requirement for the indulgence should be interpreted in a strict, and not a broad, sense. Attachment to sin would thus involve continuous consent to sin, even though not serious, or confessed and forgiven. This would not be a proper condition to receive the indulgence. Instead, a firm purpose of amendment should be sufficient to not be attached to sin, and so to receive the indulgence.


Question: Many intellectuals for many years have considered Catholicism to be the enemy of science. There are sad cases like Galileo, for example. Are these authors correct?

Answer: The celebrated opposition of faith to reason, or science to religion, is a result of the Enlightenment, and has no origin in history, and entails a serious breach of logic. One may ask why science developed so deeply in Europe, which is a culture strongly influenced by both the Jewish and Christian faith, and did not develop easily anywhere else.

If one examines Catholic doctrine, it is clear that it greatly favors both the scientific method, and a rational examination of the universe. Eastern religions do not view the cosmos as an ordered whole, which can be examined because it is not created by a reasoning being. Islam teaches that God is not bound by any canon of truth, even God’s own. It is only in the Judeao-Christian tradition that God is taught as a reasoning, ordering mind, which not only involves will, but also truth. There are not two principles in the universe: order and chaos, but only one. The ordering mind of God can be seen in the seven days of creation in the book of Genesis. This account is not an account of modern science, to be taken in an empirical sense as merely descriptive. It is highly metaphysical. No serious Catholic ever felt called upon to state that the world was created in seven calendar days. For one thing, the sun and moon were not created to measure time until the middle of the week. What Genesis proclaims is that all time (the week) and every being (the days) result from the reasoning mind (God spoke), and the will of a benevolent creator (and it was good), who is wholly other. God creates; he is not created. This creation is ordered and reasonable because it reflects a reasoning and omnipotent God which is a spirit with an intellect and will.

The fact that one can discover this order through reason was already proclaimed in classical antiquity, albeit in differing ways by philosophers in Greece. This truth corresponded to revealed wisdom in the Scriptures, such as the book of Sirach. Not only did the early Church fathers favor use of reason in the explanation of the faith, but the very idea of the university as a school of reason and science was an invention of the Middle Ages, dominated by Catholic culture. What set the university apart from other institutions of education, even in classical antiquity, was that it was not just a professional school, or an attempt to revive received authors, but it also was truly an exercise in advancing human thought. If the universe was created by a reasoning God with a reasoned plan, then the plan could always lead to deeper understanding. This foundation for learning is completely a result of a faith, which could be reconciled with reason. This truth is taught by every truly Catholic author.

Most of the innovations in scientific thought were results of believers at these very universities. Copernicus himself, far from being opposed by the Church, was actually a product of many famous Church universities: Bologna, Padua, and Ferrara. As an excellent new book by a non-Catholic historian points out: “The idea that the earth circled the sun did not come to him (Copernicus) out of the blue; he was taught the essential fundamentals leading to the heliocentric model of the solar system by his Scholastic professors. What Copernicus added was not a leap, but was the implicit next step in a long line of discovery and innovation, stretching back for centuries.” (Rodney Stark, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, 137 (Kindle edition).

The Galileo case, for which Pope St. John Paul II recently apologized, may have been an exercise in exaggerated power. Far from being imprisoned by scientific truth, which is what the Enlightenment authors also portrayed in an exaggerated manner, Galileo’s case was not so much about truth, but rather the manner and timing of a specific way of presenting truth. In fact, in his celebrated work on the two world systems, there were many mistakes. Also, he was only under house arrest, and remained deeply religious, and very devout. “But it (the Galileo case) also shows it was not some naïve scholar who fell victim to a bunch of ignorant bigots—these same ‘bigots’ ignored dozens of other prominent scientists, many of them resident in Italy.” (Stark, 158) (Kindle edition). It is important to realize then that Christian theology was the essential foundation for the growth of modern science until very recent times.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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  1. Avatar K J George says:

    It is said the Bishop of Padua told Galileo “If I look into the contraption which you have made I may believe you but I am not inclined to do so.” Look at the Bishop’s thinking and mentality.
    When Joan of Arc was burned at the stake by the Catholic fanatics one man repeat only one man from those who were watching it said in loud voice “we have burnt a saint.” It took 640- years or more for the Catholic Church to make Joan a saint.
    Those who were the “sole controllers or guardians” of Catholic Church adamantly refused to accept a new invention or discovery in the past and the situation is still the same in year 2018.

    • The acceptance of a new theory without conclusive proof is not refusal to accept the new theory but the refusal to lower one’s standards.

      • Avatar Patrick Cullinan, Jr. says:

        >It is said the Bishop of Padua told Galileo “If I look into the contraption which you have made I may believe you but I am not inclined to do so.”

        This is a myth. It never happened.
        And Galileo did not invent the telescope. The Dutch did.
        (HPR, please don’t give countenance to crank comments.)

    • It is inaccurate to call Geoffroy Therage, St. Joan’s chief prosecutor, a Catholic anything. St. Joan’s appeal to the Pope was ignored by the “court” and the group attacking St. Joan where simply politically motivated like the enemies of Holy Church are today.